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Monday, May 6, 2013

On Rising, Part 2

If you haven't read Part 1, you might want to start there or this might not make much sense.

One of my favorite quotes is a simple two words, repeated.

"We rise... we rise."

It's said as a kind of prayer by Pocahontas in Terrence Malick's gorgeous film, The New World. To me, those words encapsulate what the work of social justice is all about: we rise. 

Not "I rise." Without others, we cannot lift ourselves from our mistakes and tragedies.

These words echoed in my head as I spent the day, a couple of weeks ago, with the men of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (a.k.a. PEP). It came at the end of that terrible week - the bombings in Boston, the explosion in West, the death of the gun control bill in Congress. I think many of us who were there that day were feeling lost.

Inside the walls of the PEP classroom, though, joy was overflowing. The word "love" was thrown around freely. Men - big, tattooed, incarcerated men - danced. It was like nothing I had ever seen. In my work, we say that the highest level of classroom culture is "passionate, urgent, joyful and caring." I've been in very few classrooms that exemplified this kind of culture, but PEP certainly did.

As I spoke with the men, they talked of who they were when they entered the program: reclusive, closed off, selfish. They had gone through character assessments from the other men, had been charged with transforming themselves and held accountable by their fellow participants. Not one man that I met could be described as reclusive. They greeted us with cheers, smiles, handshakes.

I realize this all sounds naive, as if I'm ascribing some magic to what I saw, or forgetting what these men did. I assure you, forgetting was impossible; they were totally honest about the actions that had led them to prison. They talked about the families back home, not knowing if they would be welcomed back. One man spoke of his deepest desire: to have a paying job - any job. He had never had one before.

I had a lot of swirling thoughts and realizations that day, but the one I keep coming back to is this:
transformation happens in community.


Most people in society would consider prisoners to be untrustworthy, dangerous, sick. Many of the men I talked to admitted that they had been those things before. But because of the community they had formed, the love of others, the love of the volunteers, they were rising together. Not everyone would make it to the summit. A few would re-offend, end up behind bars again... but more would not. 

That seems like everything we want as a society - for the broken to feel whole, for the lost to be found, for the sick to be well. Now that I have seen PEP, my work in education has a new urgency. Because, as I mentioned, most of the schools I visit are more like traditional prisons than they are like PEP. But if the men of PEP can rise together, then we have no excuse for not lifting our children - no matter how poor, no matter the color of their skin, no matter what country they came from - to heights that are unimaginable.

And I, as a college-educated, privileged White person, cannot rise if anyone - be she prisoner or child, immigrant or homeless -- doesn't rise with me. We rise...

We rise.

2 comments:

grace said...

Inspiring. Thank you.

Melissa Arnold said...

I'm so glad that I got to experience with you and thank you for writing these deep reflections.